From A Greater Music

From 에세이스트의 책상; Translated by Deborah Smith

Greater music, 
the voice said. The voice governed the whole world under the rain-streaked, cloud-wreathed sky. Dense with moisture, the air pressed in through the open car window, forming droplets on M’s right cheek and the exposed side of her hair. M and I wanted to listen to the sound of the rain falling on the fields. The rainwater trickled down M’s pale, almost ghost-like forehead, down over her eyelids, still more sunken after her recent cold, and over her slightly downward-pointing nose. When she tilted her head upward, her lips appeared unbelievably thin and delicate, tapering elegantly even when she wasn’t smiling, flushed red as though suffused by the morning sunlight. The delicate, languidly prominent scaffolding of her cheekbones, the cheekbones for which they had teased her at school, saying they were like an eskimo’s; the muscles directly below them trembled momentarily as if in a spasm. Far over the fields, lightning flashed slowly. If books and language were the symbol of M’s absolute world, then music was her inaccessible mind, her religion, her soul. We were descending the low-lying hills on which the rain was quietly falling. On both sides of the hills lay mown fields. The edge of the black woods was receding over them, but it was impossible to tell whether these woods existed in reality or were merely a shadow cast over the ground by the rain-laden clouds. That morning I’d stopped by the government office to sort out an issue with some documents. Before that, M had gone to get her doctor’s permission to go on a short trip. Up until her death a week ago, M’s aunt had been living in the city’s outer ring, and M and I had decided to go and collect her things. M made no comment when Shostakovich came on. Greater music, said the voice on the radio. That recorded voice always reaches us after a certain lag, like the light from distant stars; the precise span of its existence in the world remained unknown. All we could do was listen, though what we heard didn’t always correspond to the absolute value — the modulus, m — of existence. Nevertheless, without music, what kind of meaning could existence have? Greater music, saying “the voice” is surely more honest, rather than endowing it with the concrete weight of a human individual. When I heard those words on the radio it never occurred to me to personify the voice as “he” or “she.” Greater, greater music, the voice said. The word “greater,” which usually describes a comparison, isn’t appropriate in this instance. The voice used “greater music” as an expression like greater beauty or greater sadness, greater distance, greater pain, greater solitude. More x-adjective music. We never say “greater death,” death being an absolute value that does not admit comparison. Like one’s hand, which can be flipped to show either the back or the palm, it’s something that can only exist as one of two possibilities. Music is absolute, just like death. Just as “greater death” or “lesser death” is a logical impossibility, so the same can be said of music, which is of the same order as the soul. A comparison cannot be made between listening to Beethoven’s Concerto no. 2 or no. 3 as if one were “lesser” and the other “greater.” Similarly, if one were to listen to a single one of Beethoven’s concertos three times in a row, or listen to three different concertos one after the other, it would make no sense to declare that one of these is greater and the other is lesser. Might it be possible to use “greater music” as a way of expressing music as it is listened to, rather than a mere list of musical works? Can a word that expresses either something still more musical, a still deeper thirst for music (persisting in spite of much contemporary dross), or simply music itself, contain within itself the possibility for the many meanings that it connotes and suggests to be further amplified, to be somehow greater? Can it permit its own territory to be ambiguous, bounded by a far horizon incapable of clear demarcation? Greater music. Where might such words come from? The voice never made any association between Beethoven’s Concerto no. 2 and no. 3. Perhaps, all things considered, “music is greater to me” might be a more appropriate expression. Greater death, greater nakedness (as opposed to an increased number of individual naked bodies), a more primordial human (but only one individual), a greater universe, the soul of greater music, a greater rarity, a greater distance from the present location, greater Mendelssohn, greater M, and that greater winter.

In the beginning there are memories. Conventional memories whose essence is either visual or aural, shifting eventually to those which, through their own agency, reclaim past scenes inside remembered soundscapes. Mendelssohn-Bartholdy-Strasse, immersed in the music I am oblivious to the fact that the train that I have to take has already pulled in, the passengers have already boarded and the train has whisked them away. Clara Schumann’s portrait gleaming pale above paper money, the Shostakovich corner in the LP store, a gramophone discovered in an antiques store on the craftsman’s street, a museum of musical instruments down a small side street not marked on the map, music schools. More music. Raindrops fell, and were overlaid above with more drops, and above them still more. They fell continuously, layer upon layer, and an instinctive lifting of one’s gaze sees severally existing worlds unfurl over the fields, stretching away beyond the gray barrier that marked the edge of the motorway. Air heavy with rain, overcast with clouds, churned by gusting wind, the melancholy color of a seemingly shadowed evening, earth and water and air and color. Of all the discrete chords pursuing infinite freedom each on their separate path, each in possession of their own language, a musician singled out one. That chord, which layered raindrop over raindrop, extended the domain of the original droplet throughout the world that lay beneath the massing clouds, beyond the fields and low hills and what had at one time been wilderness. On stage, at an orchestral concert I’d attended with M, an oboist mistakenly played a sharp note. It had happened at least twice by the time they were halfway through the movement, which wasn’t a particularly long one. Overall, a disappointing performance. During the break, people milled around in the hall, wineglasses full. The sound of the wine lapping against the delicate glasses differed according to whether it was white or red. People in black woolen clothes gathered there, the sounds of their conversation filling the lower part of the cavernous space like smoke dispersing at a low height, before being gradually absorbed into the walls and portraits. This was in the dead of winter. It was at M’s house that I first heard “At the Santé Prison,” the song of a condemned man awaiting death. Between one piece and another, or one movement and another movement, I would open the kitchen window a little and breathe in the crisp air, or make some fresh coffee. At first I was bored, unable to lose myself in the music. At the time I was more taken up with M than I was with Shostakovich. All the same, we listened to all fifteen of Shostakovich’s symphonies, one after another, in no particular order. Symphony no. 11, Symphony no. 7, Symphony no. 14, Opus 135, the poetry of Lorca, Apollinaire, Rilke, Küchelbecker. The solo begins, death is omnipotent, without solace, afterimage or praise. But before the song was over I’d left La Santé, no, M’s house, and was heading home. The symphony had made an immediate impression on me. Later, I realized that it had caused me to acknowledge the omnipotence of death, the sole theme of such music. This acknowledgement hurt those close to me, and I had to endure their condemnation. The night was deep, the lamps stood unlit, and the paved road was uneven; the tram stop was some way off. Beneath the raindrops, still more raindrops were falling, not at a constant speed, but continuously. Beside them other raindrops were falling, also at unappointed intervals, and beside them still more raindrops, and beside them still more . . . thus was the world beneath the massed clouds captured and occupied. It was the empire of a mathematics which, for all its exquisite detail, was freed from the strictures of an orderly rhythm, and played extempore.

It was in my teens, when I got my own stereo and learned to play the piano and violin, that I found my way in to the world of music. It was learning an instrument that opened this door, providing a deeper understanding than can be gained through passive listening. And yet I turned out to be utterly devoid of musical talent, even allowing for the fact that I was too old, by then, to be able to tap into that innate ear for music that children supposedly have. At the time, though, I can’t say I really felt the lack, because in those days I imagined that this thing, music, was merely incidental to the world, a kind of garnish. In other words, I considered it on-par with overly embellished old-fashioned clothes, romantic poetry, my weekly art class, an intricately crafted dessert, the occasional trip to the theater as a reward for good grades. I was painfully sensitive as a teenager, at the mercy of the emotions that roiled and raged within me. The music lessons bored me, so I quit—that was the way I used to act, and I’m genuinely ashamed to think of it now. I was far more interested in other, “popular” things—films, music, dance—whose mind-numbing, facile simplicity meant they could be enjoyed without any form of critical engagement. My parents didn’t know much about music themselves, and when I decided to drop my lessons in favor of learning a computer programming language, they agreed that this would be a more productive use of my time. After all, it wasn’t as though I was intending to go on to music school, and the lesson fees hadn’t exactly been cheap. My adolescence was marred with so much that was base and contemptible. In those days I had a Fischer-Dieskau record, ones by Maria Anderson and Maria Callas, and a Schubert collection (the name of the singer escapes me), as well as full-length aria collections like Madame Butterfly and La Traviata, etc. But I soon set aside that kind of music in favor of ABBA records, or the soundtracks of the latest popular films, which I borrowed from my classmates. At the time, the thing which dominated my life was neither films nor my father, but deference to the tastes and opinions of the group. Even then, I knew that La Traviata or Fischer-Dieskau were more beautiful than ABBA, but if I didn’t listen to ABBA then I couldn’t join in when my classmates enthused over their favorite songs. If I didn’t watch the films that were constantly on at the cinema, with their slick editing and predictable plots, then when all the other kids could talk of nothing else I would have to pretend I just hadn’t gotten round to seeing it for some reason, and pay close attention while the others went on about how great it had been. Even worse would have been if I were to mention a scene from La Traviata, or praise Fischer-Dieskau’s voice; then, as instantaneously as a trap snapping shut, I would be ostracized, deliberately ignored, my very existence blanked out. Adolescence is a time of uncertainty and instability, and I couldn’t help but fear being condemned as old-fashioned, or as putting on airs. Worse, nothing that I learned at school gave me cause to suspect that there might be something more worthwhile than the simple, sentimental connection afforded by popular music. Being yourself was frowned upon, while ignorance was actively promoted. In those days, the authority of school was so absolute that neither I nor even my parents would dare to harbor thoughts that went against the grain. Such a thing would have been seen as undermining the good of the group, of which we were merely constituent parts. Of course, the teachers were ostensibly the ones who held the school under their sway, but they were merely the kings of the day, while the kings of the underground, the sovereigns of all darkness and terror, the merciless kings who dispensed with reason and logic, the brutal monarchs whose lust for fresh victims had all the hunger of a school of sharp-toothed piranhas, who would on no account allow their prey to go free until they were sated; they, the kings of night, already bearing in large part the natural disposition of the mob, and having this cultivated day by day, the anti-educators, were none other than the pupils.

Such a lot of time has gone by since then. Now, I have willingly taken upon myself the role of M’s protector. An inconceivably intense affection flooded through me for the tender, haughty being known as M. I closed the glass window, anxious about the prospect of M catching yet another cold. The sharp tang of petrol pervaded the interior of the old car. M had a serious allergy to many medicines, so she couldn’t take general fever remedies. Greater music, the voice said. Even before the final bar had ended, the voice repeated those same sounds, greater music. Like the raindrops which fell continuously, but seemingly without any fixed pattern, greater music, in an uncalculated extempore moment before the final notes were over, like the falling of the next raindrop while the lingering notes of the first still sound, falling to the ground beneath the clouds with no set beat, greater music, the next first notes joined the continuum. That continuous sound is called music. In winter.

Shostakovich’s Sonata for Viola and Piano is his final work, which he completed while in the hospital. He seemed to have had a strong premonition regarding his own death. According to him: We don’t simply fear death now and then; rather, our mortal lives are far more deeply threaded with its presence. At least, that’s how it seems to me…

A Greater Music © Open Letter Books 2016

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